Sunday, March 22, 2009

The sweetest redemption song

This is what redemption feels like. Pretty damn sweet. After the tensest of occasions in Cardiff on Saturday evening, this Irish rugby team finally, and with the nerve and bottle of a group of winners, fulfilled a sense of destiny by picking up a championship and Grand Slam. It took all of their belief, all their cunning and all their heart to eek out two tries when they needed them, work a drop-goal at the death and then a dash of luck to see Stephen Jones's kick drop a foot short. On such inches are grand slam hopes reliant but Declan Kidney's men deserved that stroke.

Oh there were more superheroes than a comic-con convention. Paul O'Connell redefined leadership with steal after steal at lineouts, with drive upon drive and tackle after tackle in the loose. Brian O'Driscoll put in the sort of shift that's expected now, stealing ball he's no right to, making tackles he doesn't have to and adding another try (shame on Jumpthefence for doubting the man pre-season). And Ronan O'Gara showed balls to come up with that kick when he'd been put through the mill by Welsh runners and had looked half-knackered for long spells. As we said, earlier, this was redemption of the greatest sort.

The game itself was typical of modern rugby - lots of collisions, lots of running into one another, little enough linebreaks or offloading - but it was no less breathtaking for that. Jumpthefence has never seen a more intensely contested game, where every single lineout, scrum and run/ tackle was a possibility of losing possession, where a turnover could be forced in any situation and there wasn't handy ball to be had.

Ireland fronted up to Wales with savage workrate, tackled them high up the field and dominated field position. Wales rarely made a break or looked a danger getting in for a try, it's just that it took till the second half before Ireland got any sort of penetration into their play themselves. Brian O'Driscoll forced a try by about a millimetre. Tommy Bowe charged onto an O'Gara dink. Then Ireland seemed to choke a little on the thought of the grand slam, making silly mistakes and decisions for a spell that allowed Wales take the lead again through a few Stephen Jones penalties. Jeez, the dreams looked iffy at two points down with five minutes left.

The clicking into gear after that was, well, defining, and it spoke of an inner calm, belief and bloodymindedness that hasn't always been in this side. Ireland worked the ball up the field - helped by an awful Jones error kicking a ball out on the full - and presented a chance for O'Gara. He landed it without shrinking, when a lesser man may have had shaky legs. Still there was time for that last-gasp penalty when time seemed to stop for a minute and the real possibility of the most shattering of losses flashed before this Irish team's eyes. Inches saved them. Inches they'd earned.

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